Here’s Everything We Learned About Boston 2024 from City Hall’s Emails, Part I

In the early days of the Olympic bid, Mayor Walsh's team scrambled to coordinate and respond to an onslaught of media scrutiny, citizen complaints, and offers of political help.

boston city hall

Boston City Hall Photo by Naquib Hossain on Flickr/Creative Commons

After much anticipation, City Hall fulfilled the first of three public records requests filed by No Boston 2024’s Jonathan Cohn. No Boston sought written and electronic communications of Chief of Staff Dan Koh, Mayor Marty Walsh’s former Chief of Operations and current Boston 2024 COO Joe Rull, and celebrated political insider Doug Rubin of Northwind Strategies, one of the public relations firms retained by Boston 2024.

This first phase, comprised of “any written or electronic communication sent or received by City of Boston employee Joseph Rull from January 1, 2015 through February 6, 2015,” was released Wednesday in a 1,319-page PDF. Six emails were withheld as attorney-client communications, while 15 emails were minimally redacted to remove private contact information, Chief of Government Services Maribeth Cusick told Cohn. The overwhelming majority of the emails contained in the PDF comprised Walsh’s daily press briefing: local media clippings, newsletters from State House News’s insider email MASSterlist, and Google Alerts results for search terms “City of Boston” and “Mayor Walsh.”

But that wasn’t all: The emails also shine a rare light on the backroom maneuverings at City Hall, as the mayor’s team has scrambled to coordinate its efforts to bring the Olympic games to town.

Here are all the revelations a $309.76 request can buy.

1. Walsh’s office carefully coordinated which public officials should be seen publicly supporting the bid in newspaper op-ed pieces. One suggestion would’ve rolled out op-eds by Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, but Rull called that pairing “too North Shore.”

In a January 21 email, Chief of Policy Joyce Linehan told other city officials that Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera had offered to write an op-ed in the Boston Globe in support of the Olympics, touching on the benefits to the region. But Linehan had an even bigger splash in mind. “Seems to me it would be more powerful coming from TWO surrounding mayors. Can you think of a second?” Linehan asked Tim Sullivan. “Maybe to the south or west?”

“Mayor Kim Driscoll confirmed her support and would be excited to co-sign the op-ed,” Sullivan wrote. “Before adding her to emails with Mayor Rivera I wanted to double check that folks think a Rivera/Driscoll combo is good. Would be good to activate such strong supporters.”

Chief Communications Officer Laura Oggeri approved, but Rull disagreed: “Too north shore, where is Koch and Sullivan?” [Presumably, he’s referring to Quincy Mayor Tom Koch and Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan.]

City official James Sullivan also noted that Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza was in support of the Olympics and “wants to be helpful to [Walsh].” “Can we connect him with proper 2024 people and further think about how to best supply Mayors with talkers and into as it evolves?” Sullivan asks. “Would [Walsh] want to speak with him?” Koh refers Sullivan to Rubin to talk about the matter.

2. City Hall bristled at a Wall Street Journal story in which Walsh appeared to reverse his position on a Boston 2024 ballot referendum.

Walsh spoke to a WSJ reporter in January, saying he would not oppose a public referendum. “If we hear pushback and there’s real legitimate concern from people, then we can take that step,” he said.

That appeared to contradict Walsh’s earlier statements that a referendum wasn’t needed—and set off a flurry of emails inside City Hall trying to walk back Walsh’s comments. In a later email, Press Secretary Bonnie McGilpin told Rull, Oggeri, and Koh that she’d spoken with the WSJ, hoping the paper would change the story’s headline if they provided a statement to clarify. “Yes, they need to change ASAP,” Oggeri wrote. “And issue a correction.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Ryan at the Globe wanted a transcript of Walsh’s comments. And McGilpin was seeking an opinion—from Catherine Lizotte, senior assistant corporation counsel at the Law Department—on whether a ballot question would be binding or non-binding. McGilpin suggested providing reporters with links to New York Times and MentalFloss articles on previous ballot questions concerning the Vancouver, Denver, and Salt Lake City Games.

“…If after the entire nine month community process is complete, and the signatures have been collected for a statewide ballot question or citywide referendum, the Mayor will not stand in the way of a vote,” McGilpin wrote in the clarifying statement.

From the WSJ story, as it appears now online:

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Walsh said that if local residents wanted a vote, ‘I wouldn’t stand in the way.’ That was a shift from Jan. 9, when Mr. Walsh told reporters there would be no referendum on the bid because the public would welcome the games once they understood the benefits.

Later Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Mr. Walsh clarified his stance, saying he doesn’t support a November referendum, only the right of voters to call for one. He doesn’t have the power to block a city or state vote if there are enough signatures.

“The Mayor’s Office felt that the Wall Street Journal misinterpreted a comment made by Mayor Walsh during an interview with their reporter,” Oggeri told Boston magazine Thursday. “It is our job to work with the press to correct any statements that we believe to be inaccurate.”

3. Offers of assistance poured into City Hall, including one email from a longtime Department of Neighborhood Development employee who urged Mayor Walsh to utilize the Public Facilities Commission–“It rivals the BRA in authority!” he declared–for Olympics legwork. And, potentially, for “eminent domain takings.” 

Joe Courtney, of Dorchester, submitted a message to Walsh through City Hall’s website:

Hello Mayor Walsh, I write to share a thought I hope will be helpful. In the Public Facilities Commission, you have the potential to create an agency with the staff capable of taking the lead in your bid for the Olympics. The Facilities Management department under the Commission you have now is a shadow of what it had been when it was the Public Facilities Department, (PFD). The PFD planned and built many of the schools, libraries, parks and other facilities we now see. At one point, they managed a 3 billion dollar facility construction program. It was been a powerful tool in getting the city’s work done and it could be again. In the creation of the Commission, it was given the authority to hire all needed staff, accept and manage funds from outside sources, make contracts for any required services as well as make Eminent Domain takings. They were given the responsibility for making long range plans for public facilities throughout the city. It rivals the BRA in authority! With vision, a new department can be organized, staffed and directed to work to accomplish your goals. The work to be done between now and the final selection of an Olympic host city is substantial. If Boston is selected, the work in making preparation will be enormous. You have organized a great team as evidence in selection as the US entry in the bidding and I think the PFC, and a newly energized and focused department, would be a very helpful took as you move forward. I’d be pleased to speak with you about these thoughts if you are interested.

In true Dorchester fashion, Courtney invited Walsh to McKenna’s Cafe to chat about it. Though former Boston 2024 CEO Dan O’Connell told Boston magazine that using eminent domain was once on the table for the bid, Walsh has vowed not to use it for the construction of Olympic venues.

4. John Fitzgerald predicted in January how heated Boston 2024 community meetings would become.

In a January 21 email to Rull, Koh, Walsh, Linehan, Oggeri, and Chief of Civic Engagement Jerome Smith, BRA project manager and city Olympic liaison John Fitzgerald gave a synopsis of a meeting at the Boston Convention and Events Center (emphasis ours):

Went remarkably smooth. Was even applause after showing the two initial videos at start of program. They had a lot of speakers (Erin Murphy, Fish, couple athletes, Manfredi, Rev Brown) so there was less time for community input. The Q&A was only about an hour. During the presentation they had audience write questions and people went around collecting them. Notably left out of presentation was the slide for Franklin Park, tho [sic] it was mentioned aloud (all slides are being shown at our meeting). After presentation they then pulled questions from a vase and answered them. Again went well, questions answers thoroughly, and any they didn’t get to are going to be answered and posted online. No real awkward or tense moments. One question asked why public wasn’t consulted before this stage, and in a room of 300+ about 7 or 8 people clapped. Room was majority white and many seemed from outside city. There were questions from Milton, Quincy, Western MA, and of course from Boston. Chris Dempsey from No Boston was there but there was no disruption.

Bottom line, it was best case scenario, however I DO NOT expect our local meetings to go like this. I think once we get more local, it will look more like the community meetings we are accustomed to. And I think No Boston’s presence will be much larger at our meetings. 2024 also announced their next CAG meeting in late Feb in Roxbury. This bothers me because they never told us this schedule (that I know anyway) and it seems they are trying to get out in front of us with the city community process, which I fear because then it’s like we are always playing catch up in the community and how that might look. Hope this was helpful. Thanks.